What is productivity anyway?

December 28, 2009

Productivity is a term with deep implications in Western society. If we obtain it, we are considered successful. If we don’t, we are not. While writing my book, The Power of Slow, I examined why we do the things we do such as obsessive email checking or excessive television consumption. It’s not particularly productive, nor does it add to our well-being. Why do we spend so much time with our gadgets in a virtual realm of connectivity? We ignore the people standing right beside us, interrupt them when our phones ring, and talk more animatedly into a headset than to our fellow peers in the next cubicle. In effect, we waste the units in our personal bank account of time, often engaging in useless activity.

Where are our manners? Where is our mindfulness for ourselves and others? We are in danger of becoming drones in a drama of our own making. We need to act fast in order to slow down.

The amazing thing about letting go of our perceived control over things is that miracles unfurl the moment you create the space for them to appear. We often hang on too tightly, pushing possibility to the farthest corner of the room. When we unplug, we allow an opening of light to seep through our homemade darkness.

During the early stages of writing the book, I unplugged for two weeks without Internet access. I gathered up my family, who had already begun showing signs of book fatigue by late August, and took them to the Adriatic coast in Italy for some fun in the sun. Saddled down with seven books, I had read and highlighted every single one by the last day of vacation. In fact, I was so relaxed, I began to have ideas I never would have had if I were sitting in front of my computer.

Living the slow, I strolled along the pool one day when it hit me. I could actually hear the sound of my own flip flops as they slapped my heels in rhythm to the burbling water before me. Inspired, I grabbed a notebook and jotted down a few ideas about walking speed and the pace of life. The flip-flop principle of checking how fast we walk by noting the speed of the slap was born. Many more ideas followed in rapid succession. In fact, the modernized fable of the unplugged tortoise and the online hare hat later became the prologue arrived right on time as I banged out chapter after chapter while sitting in a hotel room in Budapest.

The beauty of the Internet is a writer’s ability to work and live virtually anywhere. With this malleability comes the danger, not just for writers, but for any transient worker, of an unabashed, hyperconnectivity that zaps our life force for all its worth. Admittedly, I had one media interview (ironically about slow living) while in Italy, and a client call while in Budapest. These minor distractions reminded me that there is a world waiting for us all whenever we choose to visit, but that how we live now is all there truly is.

Full Stop

December 24, 2009

Britt Bravo wrote a brilliant post about her need for a slow holiday. I couldn’t agree more. So hop on over to her page because, truly, she says it all.

Happy Holidays everyone! I’ll see you in the New Year!

Cell phones are marvelous devices. They can unleash you from the harness of your land line, offer endless entertainment to cranky kids in the backseat and help track criminals who stupidly use a mobile phone to call home. The irony of the term cell phone itself is inescapable. Some days I too feel entrapped by my mobile like an inmate in a cell. If you feel incarcerated by yours, join the club. While the US has been slower to catch on to mobile device usage than, say, Asia, we are not far behind in the effects these devices have had on us.

With the invention of long-distance communications such as the telegraph, the telephone, satellite and even mobile phones, we have been able to connect the world with a few taps on a keypad. We can find each other at a crowded concert or call in case we get stuck alongside the road. The downside is we are always on or, at the very least, always available. For the non-criminals among us, it’s not always helpful to be that accessible.

Curious about the phenomenon of instant availability, I sat down for a Skype chat with Naomi Baron, American University professor of linguistics and author of the aptly titled book, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. While her book centers mostly around the evolution of language in the Digital Age, her most recent research points to the tenor of people’s thoughts around today’s mobile usage.

And it is surprising.

When asked to associate three words with the term mobile phone, the 18-24 age group Naomi surveyed said things like “annoying,” “addicted,” and “bondage”. When asked what they liked most and what they liked least about mobile phones, the number one answer was the same: contact. What they liked most was being able to call out if they wished (active). What they liked least was being the recipient of an unexpected call (reactive).

It takes two to text. But that is beside the point.

“People are feeling trapped by these devices,” Naomi relayed to me. Maybe being always on isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Whether in Sweden, Japan or Italy, Naomi found people to have a specific etiquette around mobile phone usage. It is considered rude to talk or even text in a movie theater in Sweden. Not surprisingly, Japan had the most uniform, formal etiquette. On the train, for instance, you are not to use it at all. Even text messaging is seen as disruptive. If someone does take a call, it is usually a business man who is then excused because, well, it was business. But things are changing. In 2001, 49% of those surveyed in Japan felt it was not okay to speak on their mobile phone on the street. By May 2008, Naomi found over 73% of those 18 to 24 years old said it was always or usual acceptable to do so.

In Sweden it is considered rude not to respond to a text message so many people feel obliged to text back within an hour. One Italian man revealed his strategy for dealing with the Always On phenomenon. “I put [my mobile phone] in a lead box to avoid being traced (so it does not signal that it is off, but not reachable).”

One American male revealed he is “too dependent” upon his mobile phone sometimes. An Italian female admitted she was much more tranquil when her cell phone was either broken or lost.

As we have seen, people have an ambivalent relationship with their mobile devices. We like the control, but prefer not to have to react to unwanted communication. In fact, as one Japanese person states, “Communication through [text messaging can] trick people’s minds as if they were engaged in real communication.” Texting a few jumbled phrases is not the same as having a face-to-face chat with a friend.

So how we can stop the madness of instant, unwanted availability and engage in the power of slow?

Create mobile-free zones. Seal your cell in the trunk of your car. Turn it off at meal times. Unplug for sixty minute increments. And, if you really have to, get a lead box like the Italian man in the survey. Regain the sense of control that instant communication once gave you so that you move towards a sometimes on, sometimes off, but always mindful life.

This is a truly remarkable story about a family that gives gifts they already have that they think others would like. And in the process, they have a lot of fun.

A recent survey released by Travel Ticker, a Web site that scours the Internet for the best travel deals, reveals that 32 percent of respondents claimed they will be travelling more for leisure in 2010 because they have “more free time”. Admittedly, of those citing more free time as their reason to increase their leisure travel in 2010, more than 38 percent of respondents had an annual household income of $76,ooo and 34 percent were 51 or older. Travel may be top of mind for these age and income brackets as many may be working fewer  hours and able to take additional paid or unpaid leave or plan on retiring in 2010.

Photo courtesy of Amy L Morton

Nonetheless, even the 18-to-30-year-old age bracket intends on flying the coop for fun. Of the total number of consumers polled, 43 percent of 18-30 year-olds said they plan on taking more leisure trips in 2010, making them the most likely group of respondents who will be increasing their travel plans.

The power of slow says take a vacation. You needn’t fly to an exotic place to take a respite. But remember to slow it down a notch every now and then. Enjoy life and the time you have.

Time is the gift that is your life.

Breathe the fresh, slow air

December 16, 2009

Wendy Thomas of Simple Thrift said The Power of Slow is “like a breath of fresh air, reminding us that it is sometimes okay to just sit back and relax.”

So when I got the call that my daughter had a tooth ache (read: anticipating 2:45 pm dentist appointment to evaluate baby tooth situation as adult tooth overlaps it…), I knew I might have a monkey wrench hurling into my otherwise placid day.

Kids, if anything, teach us flexibility.

My kids have taught me the power of slow on top of that. I took a slow, deep breath, called the school secretary and said I’d be there no sooner than 11 am to pick her up. I then went about my morning as planned. Because my daughter only has school until 12:30 pm (whoever made up the German school system based it on the belief that all mothers have time as of, oh, noon, to take on their kids again), it was no big deal. That her last two classes were cancelled, too, landed her in a place of No Biggie. She literally missed nothing when I picked her up. And neither did I. Except for maybe the solace that comes with having the house to yourself.

Wendy Thomas’ loving statement of my book, The Power of Slow, being a refreshing bit of reprieve only strengthens my belief that life unfolds as it should, even when we’re having adult-sized tantrums that things are not running according to ‘plan’.

I’m breathing the fresh, slow air. Are you?

The Winter of Rest

December 14, 2009

Oh rest ye merry gentlemen…

Our house is bursting with holiday cheer. The naked Christmas tree is about to be adorned with every bulb we’ve ever owned , not to mention all the holiday trinkets my mom has managed to send us over the years.

Voluntarily, I slid in the Kids Pop Holiday CD on my way to pick up my daughter who happened to miss the school bus home. Jet out in the snow to the place I had just returned because said daughter went into the school house to warm up when the bus was late, then missed it altogether?


Christmas time is near after all. And while ye merry gentlemen get to rest, I get to drive in a half-blizzard to gather the neighborhood kids (along with mine) because I’m just that kind of gal.

For the first time in my life I have come to appreciate winter time. What better way to slow down than encase the Earth in ice? You can’t drive fast. In fact, sometimes all you can do is sit by the fire and read, snuggled up on the couch.

It has just now gotten cold. The snow adds to the cheer of the season. Cold out. Warm within. You’ve just got to love it.

So while we toss the tinsel and hum a merry tune, I’ll be thinking how nice it feels to rest like the trees, sucking in their sap until March when the warmth of the sun returns to replenish our supply of verdant vibrance.

Have a slow holiday. You deserve it!

Entering the Zone

December 11, 2009

You have heard of the ‘Zone’. It is the special place where athletes dwell when they are living their flow. It is a place of such joy that, once there, the dweller wishes to return again and again. Is it possible for anyone to experience this timeless state of true bliss? Indeed, it is. To embrace a positive relationship with time, I would even argue that inducing the Zone is essential.

I sat down for a phone chat with Ellen J. Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of many books including On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity. We discussed how creativity can develop mindfulness, that blissful state of awareness of the now. After observing how nursing home residents flourished (and lived longer) when charged with caring for a houseplant, Ellen and her team of researchers looked for other ways in which noticing something new could contribute to well-being. In fact, she has dedicated over thirty years of her career to the study of mindfulness.

To become mindful is easier than you think.

You’ve been there. Your partner is engrossed in ‘the game’ and you’re sitting on the sidelines, pouting. Ellen suggests looking for ways to make the game viewing interesting. “Even if it’s noticing the behinds of the players,” she jested. When you notice something new about your surroundings, you are literally enlivened by it. That is the heart of mindfulness.

So what about roadblocks to our creativity? Ellen states we all live in a social construct of right and wrong, which encases us in fear about making a mistake. If there is a right way to do things, we reason, there must be a wrong way to do them. We react to the evaluations of other people and those of our own making rather than seeing things in a more powerful way. For instance, have you ever gotten a ‘bad grade’ on a test, only to dwell on how stupid you must be to have ‘failed’? These are merely evaluations of what we think versus what we could be thinking. Because our mindset becomes ‘mindless’ as we accept these evaluations as absolutes, we no longer question them or think they are negotiable.

Truth be told ~ everything is negotiable. For a lot of things, we merely made a decision a while ago to eliminate uncertainty and embrace self-induced absolutes. In the process, we reasoned that mindlessness would save us time. Automate the process! we demanded. Then we won’t have to think about it.


Then we won’t have to actual ask ourselves if what we are doing makes any sense at all. Anyone who has mindlessly surfed the Internet for an hour (as I just did yesterday!) will tell you there is a cost to mindlessness (in my case, I reached bedtime faster!).

Think about the Impressionists, for instance. They were not well-regarded in their lifetime, yet their work is some of the most valued today. Did, say, Monet’s painted water lilies change over time? They did not. Our evaluation of them, and many other paintings in that genre, has. We moved from mindless disregard to a new way of thinking. Monet and friends now grace the halls of the rich and the greeting cards of the rest.

“People have very mindless notions about creativity,” Ellen warned. “When you think of creativity, you think of a final product. Mindfulness is the focus on the process, literally and figuratively, which makes us joyful.” It goes back to the flow and zone we all crave.

Mindfulness makes you notice something new. The very act of noticing breeds more mindfulness. In the end, a mindful way of living has been proven, thanks to Ellen’s research, to grant us a longer, happier and more fulfilled existence. Living mindfully through the power of slow is as easy as child’s play.

When we are at play, we are energized, stated Ellen. Whoever said there should be a separation between work and play? What if you were to look at your work as your play? Would you be more joyful? It doesn’t matter what you do. From driving a bus to driving sales, you can experience Zone-like joy with a shift in your mindset.

“People are sealed in unlived lives,” Ellen remarked. They are afraid to express themselves for fear of making a mistake. As the Japanese notion of Wabi Sabi suggests, the very thing that marks something imperfect is the very thing that makes it beautiful. A hand-woven rug is more valued than a ‘perfect’ machine-made one.

So go grab a paint brush or pen or whatever the instrument of your creativity might be. Then rejoice in the process, mistakes and all.

Inspired by my children, who have taught me more about the power of slow than anyone on the planet.

Remember the days of catalogue shopping? You’d wait weeks after sending in your order form for the doll furniture you just knew would be perfect for your doll house. Or that special holiday dress from Sears  you could get nowhere else? Anticipation was a part of the holidays. You’d carefully plan, then wait.

Waiting is no more.

The man who tweeted saying I do (and will most likely to go on to join the ranks of those Retrevo says update their social status post-coitally, too) is only the most recent example of real-time all the time.

I don’t want to know what’s on your sandwich. It’s not important that I know every breathing moment of your existence. As a good friend of mine pointed out recently, people just want the love. And they’re reaching out virtually to get it.

Retrieve the asynchronicity by logging off every now and then. Consider taking the slow boat to your destination and the time to think along the way. Not everything needs to happen at once.

Enjoy the slow today!